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IIST e-Magazine (For the Japanese version of this article)

Series: Employing AI / IoT to Create New Businesses (2) Applying Familiar IoT to Equipment Inspections Enabling on-site safety control even by inexperienced personnel Iwao Kobata President Kobata Gauge Manufacturing Co., Ltd. [Date of Issue: 31/July/2017 No.0269-0270-1052]

Date of Issue: 31/July/2017

Series: Employing AI / IoT to Create New Businesses (2)
Applying Familiar IoT to Equipment Inspections
Enabling on-site safety control even by inexperienced personnel

Iwao Kobata
Kobata Gauge Manufacturing Co., Ltd.

Here we introduce our Cloud-based gauge and equipment maintenance and management system using RFID tag labels as an example of easily adopted IoT for the understaffed equipment inspection and maintenance area.

Mechanical Bourdon tube pressure gauges used worldwide even today

We have been manufacturing mechanical Bourdon tube pressure gauges for over a century since our company was founded in 1909. The basic structure of these generic industrial devices has remained unchanged from when they were first developed back in the mid-19th century.
Bourdon tube pressure gauges
They are widely used as cheap and accurate on-site indicators not only in Japan but around the world, with around 10 million units per annum produced domestically even today.
A characteristic of mechanical gauges like these is that because they utilize physical changes in metal, a power source is not required. Measuring is therefore as simple as attaching a gauge to a pipe, with value changes immediately visually apparent.

Gauges left unmaintained

Because of this, pressure gauges, thermometers and many other mechanical industrial devices are installed in various types of machinery, equipment and pipes, etc., in factories and buildings. As devices designed to monitor operating status on-site, they are often included in daily equipment inspections as part of safety control regimes. However, in some cases, once devices have been installed, they receive no further maintenance and end up breaking down.

Example of an Actual Equipment Inspection & Maintenance site
The pressure gauges in the photos above were installed to check source pressure in the underground parking garage of a hotel. The red needles indicate the normal value and safety threshold, and at first glance they both appear to be indicating correct pressure. However, the needle measuring actual pressure is the black one, which in the device on the left has fallen to the bottom of the device, while the black needle in the device on the right is indicating a point right off the scale. In other words, both are broken. It is sad that devices which should be monitoring safety are not serving their original function, and hotel guests would certainly be uneasy if they saw the state of these gauges.

Too few engineers and human resource development issues

By profession, when I spot a gauge I inevitably take a closer look, and I do in fact sometimes see gauges left sitting unrepaired like those above. Gauges are supposed to guard our safety and peace of mind, but they are often ignored unless there is an accident. Why does this happen? Two serious equipment inspection and maintenance issues are to blame: too few equipment maintenance engineers, and the difficulty of training new personnel to replace engineers now heading toward retirement. As a result, on-site duties tend to be reduced to the minimum. Equipment maintenance requires knowledge of a broad range of devices, but both the plant maintenance and building maintenance industries are struggling with the same personnel issues.

When numerous similar-looking devices are installed, it’s certainly hard to distinguish among them. In addition, each device has a different inspection checklist, while the basis for determining whether a device is functioning properly or not is also different, making equipment inspection and maintenance quite complex. Even large companies still frequently use printed checklists for equipment inspections in their factories, with IT uptake much slower than might be expected. In some cases, inspection data is then entered into an Excel spreadsheet back in the office for record management purposes, potentially resulting in inspection and transcription errors, while efficiency too is poor. Even companies that actively invest in production equipment sometimes seem reluctant to budget for proper maintenance.

Familiar, immediately applicable IoT

The Internet of Things (IoT) has been attracting attention in recent years, and remote monitoring of electronic gauges is expected to become increasingly common. However, with many issues yet to be resolved in relation to telecommunications infrastructure and investment costs, the introduction of IoT has been surprisingly slow, and there are still many mechanical gauges operating in superannuated equipment.

Kobata Gauge Manufacturing decided that addressing these issues would require a comparatively familiar, low-cost, easily retro-installed, energy-efficient device. Our solution was a gauge and equipment inspection and maintenance system that uses RFID* technology as a familiar and immediately applicable type of IoT.

* RFID, or Radio Frequency Identification, refers to a group of technologies using radio waves to automatically identify objects and people. Data recorded by a medium called an RFID tag can be read wirelessly using radio waves. Wireless IC cards using the FeliCa technology, etc., also fall into the RFID category. Where barcodes require each individual tag to be scanned, RFID enables multiple tags to be scanned simultaneously.

IoT-based Approach Vital in Ensuring Industrial Gauge Safety
RFID-based gauge and equipment maintenance and management system

We devised two technologies: gauge-specific RFID tag labels (patented) that film-laminate tiny RFID chips to the glass faces of various mechanical industrial devices, and a Cloud-based equipment maintenance and management system.

(1) RFID tag labels that can be attached to existing gauges
Using these RFID tag labels makes it easy to distinguish between different devices that look similar. Our other aim was IoT database linkage that would make data available for reference on-site, rationalize equipment inspection duties, and prevent inspection mistakes.

A key point with our RFID tag labels is that they can be easily attached to existing devices. Fixing them to the glass faces of gauges enables the RFID reading position to be immediately determined and automatically registered with no influence from the metal. The labels are designed to stay firmly attached and to protect the RFID from humidity and dust, etc. For the gauge glass too, we offer a functional film that adds more functions such as preventing glass from breaking and shattering, preventing fogging, and shielding out light. We can also supply metal-compatible RFID labels for inspecting equipment other than gauges. Attaching our RFID tags to inspection areas opens the way for comprehensive equipment maintenance.

Dedicated Gauge RFID Tag Labels
(2) Improving on-site work efficiency and enabling even inexperienced personnel to conduct inspections
How are these RFID tag labels applied in actual inspections? First, a master copy of the details of the various devices and their respective check points is registered on a Cloud-based equipment database and an inspection checklist sent out as data to a mobile terminal for use on-site. There the inspector uses the mobile terminal to read the RFID tags attached to inspection areas, which call up the particular check points for each device, and the inspector inputs the results. Points requiring checking, the threshold of normal operation, etc., and previous inspection records can all be accessed on the terminal, and in the case of malfunction, images and sound can also be recorded.

The inspection history can be written into each RFID’s memory and time-stamped. This enables a record to be made of inspections performed and ensures inspection viability. After the inspection, the data is again recorded in the database inspection history, where it can be stored as a CSV file so that it can also be used for maintenance data analysis.

Within each RFID, along with identification information for each device, device specifications, blueprints, manuals, and other documents and database information normally stored at the office can also be linked. This enables the inspector to check each item on-site using the mobile terminal, boosting inspection efficiency. In other words, the system provides data support for short-staffed inspection work and enables even inexperienced personnel to undertake proper inspections.

User Merits
(3) Remote monitoring system also enables local plant maintenance offshore
Linking the Cloud-based equipment maintenance and management system with our remote monitoring system also enables us to provide an IoT service for remote device monitoring and centralized management of inspection rounds. Using this service, Japanese companies that have shifted their production to local factories overseas can conduct equipment maintenance in those factories from back in Japan.

We are currently developing a data-gathering function so that rather than gauge values being input manually during inspection rounds, simply bringing the terminal near a device initiates an automatic data reading, along with a function that regularly transmits that data to a remote location, and we aim to have both these functions commercially available in the near future.

Business Outline
Since Kobata Gauge Manufacturing was first established in January 1909 as a manufacturer specializing in mechanical Bourdon tube pressure gauges, it has continued to supply these gauges under the Ikari-jirushi brand for various industrial devices, including ship-building and ship devices, plants, boilers, heat exchangers, and pumps. As both a long-established company and a venture enterprise, Kobata has recently entered the medical machinery field, applying its pressure measurement technologies to the development of respiratory measurement devices for rehabilitation purposes, while also developing IoT products.

About the Author
Iwao Kobata
Iwao Kobata, President, Kobata Gauge Manufacturing Co., Ltd.

Born January 1968. After graduating from the Kansai University Faculty of Sociology, took up a marketing position with a major pneumatic equipment manufacturer before joining Kobata Gauge Manufacturing Co., Ltd., the family company. In 1996, he became a director, and in 2013 the company president. As well as manufacturing and selling the mechanical pressure gauges which have been the company’s mainstay for over a century, he has also taken on the new challenges of applying the company’s technologies to university-industry partnership in medical equipment development and the introduction of IoT into existing gauges, as well as a public-private sector manufacturing-based regional revitalization initiative in his hometown Taisho Ward, Osaka.

(For the Japanese version of this article)

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